The Next President

I started this post right after the election but set it aside until now (just before the inauguration) to finish up and publish after a little more time for reflection.  It has two parts.  First, a bit about race and the recent election.  Second, some of the stuff that I was reading and watching right after the election that highlighted its significance.

Part 1: Race and Obama's election

Race was a big issue in this past election.  How could it not be?  A country with slavery and ubiquitous racial discrimination lurking in it's recent (relatively speaking) past was considering electing its first black president.  For the most part, Obama avoided the discussion of race because he didn't want to make white voters uncomfortable by being "the black candidate."  However, he still had to find a way to appeal to blacks because they needed some convincing too.  The uproar over Rev. Wright forced Obama to give a "A More Perfect Union" speech in which he encouraged Americans move beyond "racial stalemate" to address our common social problems.  His tight-rope walk to woo one group while not alienating the other was described in a recent article in The Atlantic (link).  Despite Obama's lack of emphasis on race, many of his supporters saw an underlying racial element in the attacks and TV ads of his opponents.  On the other side, many made the accusation that Colin Powell's endorsement, for example, was all about race.  On YouTube we saw evidence that some voters felt like they just couldn't trust a black man as president.  After the election, in the comments sections of web sites and on Facebook you saw people questioning the legitimacy of the election because (for example) of the fact that Obama received 95 % of the black vote...

As illustrated by this graph from (link), African Americans have been voting overwhelmingly Democrat in presidential elections for the last 50 years:


This trend, not coincidentally I think, also parallels the Republicans' "southern strategy," via which they are purported to have attempted to improve their electoral success by exploiting racism among whites in the south.  Yes, Obama won 95 % of the black vote (link), but that's hardly a striking anomaly compared to the level of support all the white Democratic candidates have received during the last 50 years.  If blacks or the electorate as a whole just wanted a black person (any black person) as president, we've had several other options in the recent past (Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Alan Keyes, Shirley Chisholm, Lenora Fulani, and Carol Moseley Braun).  Furthermore, black voters were famously tepid in the support for Obama until after he won the Iowa primary and showed that he was a viable candidate able to convince whites to give him their votes.  It's not surprising that blacks would tend to be excited to have a president that shares their ethnicity.  Whites have had that luxury since the country was founded.  It's not surprising that many of us are excited that out country has elected it's first black president and will (presumably and hopefully soon) elect it's first female president.  Despite the results of all of our previous elections, we know that white men are not the only good candidates for president.  There are plenty of capable women and minorities, and it is exciting to see an election reflect that fact rather than continuing the legacy of discrimination.  This is worth celebrating.  On that note...


Part 2:

Here are a few excerpts from some the of the stuff that I was reading and watching in the wake of Obama's victory:

Texas in Africa
like you

When we went to see Obama speak in Austin in January, our little group was next to this woman and her son. He was maybe three or four years old, and of course couldn't see, so people around her took turns holding him up. It was way past his bedtime when Obama finally took the stage, I'm sure.

There was a lot going on that night, and I wasn't watching him for most of it, but when Obama first came out and his mother picked him up, the little boy looked at the stage, got a confused look, and asked his mom a question:

"Is he white or brown?"

"He's brown," his mom replied. "Like you."

For me, that may have been the most powerful moment of this campaign. The thought that that little boy can grow up in a world where he will believe that anything is possible for his life has just overwhelmed me. He will grow up in a world where the formal discrimination that governed his grandparents' lives, and the implicit racism that affected his parents' will lose some of its power. All because of this election.

Shame of racial history not easily lifted, but what a start
Kathleen Parker, conservative columnist

'Fess up. You wept.

OK, I'll go first. Tears came twice.

First, when John McCain hushed his booing crowd to acknowledge the significance of this nation's electing an African-American to the presidency. Second, when Barack Obama delivered his acceptance speech

This may say more about my friends than about Obama, but I haven't spoken to anyone who didn't become emotional. (Please don't write to tell me you were unmoved. I think you've already been in touch.)

Owing to my pale pigmentation and heritage, perhaps I am not able to fully understand the impact that Obama's election has had on African-Americans.
But like many other Americans, especially Southerners, my life is inextricably intertwined with the African-American experience. It isn't just a bit of thread or texture in life's tapestry, but is central to my emotional and psychological constitution

During the next four years, we will differ with our new president on policies and appointments, but we can all agree on the momentousness of this transaction. There's something different in the air.

The day after the election, an African-American woman and I were marveling about events and trying to put our finger on what had changed. That thing. The little speck of difference that kept us imperceptibly apart had been dissolved in a lovely instant of national consensus that race no longer matters.

Of course that's an overstatement to say that race no longer matters, but it is certainly encouraging that race is no longer a disqualifier.  Obama didn't win a majority of the white vote.  Though none of the other Democratic candidates have done so in the last 50 years, Timothy Noah makes the argument (link) that the Democrat's deficit with white voters is related to race (the fact that Lyndon Johnson, the last Democrat to win a majority of the white vote, signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law).

Audacity of America uncovered
Steve Chapman, conservative columnist

The improbability of his rise should help sustain conservatives in their hour of disappointment. This election furnishes irrefutable proof that America is a special country, with possibilities that don't exist elsewhere.

It shows that our harshest critics - Jeremiah Wright Jr. comes to mind - are missing something essential. No one of good will can look at what happened Tuesday and say, "God damn America."

Anyone watching the crowds celebrating this victory could see they were not motivated by a rigid left-wing ideology but by the principles America has enshrined since its founding: liberty, equality, opportunity and respect for the individual. They want to purge the original sin of racial oppression. They want to fulfill our ideals, not abandon them

The notable aspect of John McCain's concession speech Tuesday night was how different it was from everything coming from his campaign in the months before. It was temperate, generous and noble in spirit, and it made you wonder: Where has this guy been hiding, and why?

The striking thing about Obama's speech, by contrast, was how consistent it was with how he conducted himself from the start. It retained the subtext of his campaign: We are a better, more tolerant, more civil, more unified country than our politics has suggested in recent years. We can overcome our differences, racial and other.

At many points in the last two years, there has been reason to think Obama was wrong. It doesn't look that way now.

A Path Beyond Grievance (link)
William Raspberry

It's been said that the ascendancy of Barack Obama signals the beginning of a "post-racial" America.

I wish. What we have witnessed, I think, is something less profound but still hugely significant. Obama's election means that in America, including at the highest levels of our politics, race is no longer an automatic deal-breaker. That's a major step forward in the thinking of white America.

For black America, Obama may be the harbinger of a different transformation: the movement away from what might be called the civil rights paradigm. Since the astounding success of the civil rights movement nearly half a century ago, America's black leadership has been a civil rights leadership, focused almost exclusively on grievance -- America owes us the right to vote, to enjoy places of public accommodation, to attend nonsegregated schools, to be free of the laws that underlie American-style apartheid.

America listened, and changed.

What more recent black leaders have not acknowledged is that there are some problems that the grievance model cannot address. The schools black children attend don't work as well as they should -- but most often for reasons that have less to do with white attitudes than with our own. Many black children -- and too many of their parents -- don't value education. If they do, they see it as a debt owed rather than a prize to be earned. Their resulting undereducation renders them specially vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the job market. Black communities are beset by crime and violence but, again, less because of racism than because of lack of discipline in those communities. One key reason for this failure of discipline is the dissolution of black families -- not because of discrimination but because black Americans lead the nation in fatherlessness, having allowed marriage to fall to an all-time-low priority.

Maya Angelou: I'm So Proud

Steven Waldman
My Voting Experience -- "Thank You, Jesus"

I just finished voting. My neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York is mostly Carribean-American and strongly Obama.

A few observations.

Very few signs. On most election days, all up and down Rogers Ave, you see signs for various candidates. This time, no. You wouldn't even know there's an election. (Life in a non-battleground state!)

The lines coming out of the elementary school stretched around three city blocks. The tone was not ecstatic. It was serious. People were friendly but definitely not jubilant. It had more the feeling that they were doing important work.

Hard not to get emotional as very old, or handicapped, black voters shuffled up the front of the line.

Finally, perhaps sensing the strangely quiet nature of the line, someone jumped out of a building screaming at the top of her lungs in joy. Everyone laughed nervously. "Let it out," she said.

Another older woman walked up and down the street, declaring. "Thank you. Thank you. We've suffered too long. Thank you for being here. Praise the Lord. Thank you, Jesus." Some quiet Amens were whispered back.

Suzie Estes
I Cried

About fifteen minutes ago, Barack Obama was confirmed by all the news channels to be the 44th President of the United States, and I did something that I never would have predicted...I cried.

You see, this morning, when I was driving to a nearby park to walk, I noticed a young, black male walking down my street from nearby apartments. Later, on my way to the gym, I saw him walking away from a polling place, and it dawned on me that he had gone to vote and was now returning home. I thought about what a moment that must have been for him, a boy of around eighteen to wake up early, walk a mile, and cast a vote for a President who looked like him...

So while I didn't vote for Senator Obama, and oppose many of his plans and policies, tonight, I have to acknowledge the historic significance of his victory, and celebrate the doors of new possibilities opened in the hearts and minds of the children who have been watching.

Greg Fielder

It truly was a historic day. On a couple of different occasions last night I felt my eyes filling with water. Watching the Obama family walk onto the stage in Chicago was one of those times, and it was a remarkable moment. Change has indeed come to America.

I am not an African American. I have not experienced the things that black people in this country have had to live through, and I never will. It meant a lot to me last night to see the first family walk out on that stage and have them not look like me. But I cannot comprehend how African Americans in this country felt to watch that same scene unfold when, for the first time in our country's history, the first family does look like themselves. It was moving to see closeup shots of Jesse Jackson and Oprah in the crowd, with tears streaming down their face, knowing that it means far more to them and thousands of others who have looked forward to this day for so long. I saw a number of black parents interviewed who said something to the effect of, “Now when I tell my son/daughter that they can be anything they want to, they can believe me without a doubt. Yes, you can.

I did not vote for Barack so that we could have an African American in the White House. Voting based on what race a candidate is (or isn't) would be foolish. I felt like he was the best choice for this country at this time. And I look forward to the next four years. But the historical significance of this moment cannot be minimized.

A Butler Well Served by This Election
Wil Haygood

For 34 Years, Eugene Allen Carried White House Trays With Pride. Now There's Even More Reason to Carry Himself That Way.

Eugene Robinson
Stepping Into the Sunshine

It's obvious that the power of this moment isn't something that only African-Americans feel. When President Bush spoke about the election Wednesday, he mentioned the important message that Americans will send to the world, and to themselves, when the Obama family moves into the White House.

For African-Americans, though, this is personal.

I can't help but experience Obama's election as a gesture of recognition and acceptance -- which is patently absurd, if you think about it. The labor of black people made this great nation possible. Black people planted and tended the tobacco, indigo and cotton on which America's first great fortunes were built. Black people fought and died in every one of the nation's wars. Black people fought and died to secure our fundamental rights under the Constitution. We don't have to ask for anything from anybody.

Yet something changed on Tuesday when Americans -- white, black, Latino, Asian -- entrusted a black man with the power and responsibility of the presidency. I always meant it when I said the Pledge of Allegiance in school. I always meant it when I sang the national anthem at ball games and shot off fireworks on the Fourth of July. But now there's more meaning in my expressions of patriotism, because there's more meaning in the stirring ideals that the pledge and the anthem and the fireworks represent.

It's not that I would have felt less love of country if voters had chosen John McCain. And this reaction I'm trying to describe isn't really about Obama's policies. I'll disagree with some of his decisions, I'll consider some of his public statements mere double talk and I'll criticize his questionable appointments. My job will be to hold him accountable, just like any president, and I intend to do my job.

For me, the emotion of this moment has less to do with Obama than with the nation. Now I know how some people must have felt when they heard Ronald Reagan say "it's morning again in America." The new sunshine feels warm on my face.

Ellen Goodman
The Relay Race of Social Change

Race was not "the issue" in this election. The issue was the economy. The issue was the war. The issue was the dark conviction that America was heading on a disastrously wrong track. We chose the cool hand of a change agent.

But if race wasn't the "issue," it was the "story" in the word history. It was the narrative, the huge question mark hovering around our sense of self on magazine covers and conversations that asked: "Is America Ready for a Black President?" It ended with a resounding "Yes, we can."

Americans didn't vote for Obama to prove that this is not the same country that once sicced dogs on black schoolchildren. But it proves that.

Americans didn't pick Obama to rebrand our country and trash the cartoon images put forth by our enemies. But it does that.

We didn't choose Obama to show that scare-mongering - socialism! Muslim! Barack the Redistributor! - has failed. But it shows that.

So too, we didn't push the lever for Obama to crack the shell of cynicism that dampens the expectations of inner-city black teenage sons of single mothers. And we didn't elect Obama to grab back the word "values" from those who use it as a wedge. But these messages also lurk in the 7-million-vote margin of victory.

We arrived at a moment when change was the most conservative option. The 47-year-old president-elect came to represent the belief that Americans had to embrace change to conserve those things that mean the most to us, including our country's future.

So Tuesday we voted to reboot America. All the same problems Obama listed are on the desktop this morning: "two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century." It won't be long before excitement is edged with impatience.

But this is a day to bear witness to a victory lap in the relay race of social change.

Even some of the folks who during the campaign were making rather ridiculous charges about Obama's patriotism, for example, had positive things to say afterwards (link):

Just a few weeks ago, at the height of the campaign, Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota told Chris Matthews of MSNBC that, when it came to Mr. Obama, "I'm very concerned that he may have anti-American views."

But there she was on Thursday, after narrowly escaping defeat because of those comments, saying she was "extremely grateful that we have an African-American who has won this year." Ms. Bachmann, a Republican, called Mr. Obama's victory, which included her state, "a tremendous signal we sent."

In the next few days, Lisa and I plan to make the trip to D.C. to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama.  Frankly, despite all the polls, I was still pleasantly surprised that in the end he won.  I know many people considered an Obama election to be a disaster for this country.  I don't think so, but history will tell.  I have no doubt, though, that it was a major positive milestone in our country's racial history...and I celebrate it.